In 1976 Tadao Ando, a young, unknown, self-taught Japanese architect, completed a tiny two-story row house in Sumiyoshi, a working-class neighborhood in Osaka that somehow had escaped destruction in World War II. The house measures no more than 10 feet across by 30 feet deep; windowless, it faces the street like a concrete bunker; inside, it is divided into thirds, with living quarters separated by a little courtyard open to the sky; when it rains, inhabitants use umbrellas to cross the bridge from bedroom to bath.

The house became famous. It won a top prize in 1979 from the Architectural Institute of Japan and hit the world architectural press like a punch in the stomach: At a time of increased attention to history and to physical context, it seemed to say, "Enough, already. Let's get back to basics."

Its creator wrote, shortly after the unveiling: "The facade is alien to its surroundings. But this expresses the potential of the individual to develop outward, because interior spaces of the dwelling are fully adequate." About the exposed courtyard, he observed, "The light court is an extraordinary space that should make a deep psychological impression on the people living in the house."

Ten years later he remains adamant. He was asked, during a recent visit to his Osaka studio, how anyone possibly could guess the existence of an open court inside that blank exterior. "Maybe foreigners or Tokyo people cannot feel the inside of the house when they see this facade," he said, "but the people in this neighborhood, they can feel that it has a courtyard."

He still does smaller houses of the kind that established his reputation, but he's made larger, more exquisite places for richer people. He has built large-scale cluster housing and a few modest (for Japan) center-city commercial buildings. He has designed an art museum (though it was not built) and recently completed a wedding chapel.

But in a way, as a sign of his esthetic and moral positions, the Sumiyoshi row house remains the bedrock icon of Ando's career, one of the more challenging and extraordinary in all of contemporary Japan.

bat10 Ando, at 45, projects a fierce sort of contentment. He wears his good looks with a certain impatience (though he knows, of course) and moves, when he moves, quickly. I wasn't surprised to read that he is a "sometime pugilist." He's busy. The designers in his rabbit warren of a workshop look as if they'd rather die than goof off; when Ando speaks, issuing what seem to be staccato pronunciamentos in a gravelly, commanding voice, they concentrate on what he says.

A visit to Ando's place of work is not without its pitfalls for one who does not speak Japanese. Yumiko Ando, his handsome wife who handles the business side of the firm, sometimes could do nothing more than shrug and smile at the interviewer as she sought to translate the torrent of his words. Once, when we adjourned for miso soup and cold soba at a little neighborhood restaurant, he went on for 15 minutes, lecturing nonstop about contemporary American architecture to another colleague, who nodded his head a lot. The only words a visitor could understand were the intermittent names: "Pei" . . . "Venturi" . . . "Johnson" . . . "Graves" . . . "SOM."

Not much has been written in English about Ando's life, but a terse biography the firm hands out tells a lot: "1941, Born in Osaka, Japan; 1962-70, Self-instruction in architecture, travelled in the United States, Europe and Africa; 1970, Established Tadao Ando Architect & Associates."

The Osaka connection is important. "Because Ando works there and because he is self-taught, his oeuvre represents a criticism of architectural circles in Tokyo and the hothouse ambiance of architectural schools in general," wrote architecture critic Hiroshi Watanabe. "Osaka is a hometown for Ando in a way that Tokyo can never be for many of the architects who live and work in the capital."

Ando's regionalism and his individualism are part of his public, and private, persona. Until very recently most of Ando's commissions, small and large, were in Osaka and the surrounding Kansai district. He really occupies his neighborhood -- works there, eats there, lives there -- and is his own best client. His latest completed project is an enchanting little teahouse tacked onto the back roof of a traditional row house he owns near the studio.

*Ando is a modern architect of a Japanese generation that has rejected, on the one hand, the facile commercial modernism prevalent today in Japanese cities and, on the other, the applique' traditionalism (old forms in new materials) of a postwar generation of Japanese architects.

The building blocks of his art are primary geometric forms -- squares, rectangles and circles -- subjected to intense analysis and manipulation. The materials he almost always uses -- concrete, steel and glass -- are modern, as is his reformist spirit. His rejection of the contemporary Japanese city seems complete: "As lifeless buildings fill our cities, I have become acutely conscious of the deadly, oppressive nature of the environment in which I live," he has written. "My intention," he said, "is to create a spiritual world, to make a space which is so strong and deep it will penetrate to the people who contact that space."

Ando believes that traditional architecture must be transformed to meet the new conditions of postwar Japan. Hence, in his designs one often can detect references, however abstracted, to national and local cultural traditions. At the Rokko housing complex, for instance, which climbs a steep hill overlooking distant Kobe harbor, the impressive stairwell reminds a visitor of the steps that lead to Japanese shrines and temples on remote mountainsides.

Similarly, the long flagstone walkway leading to the beautiful wedding chapel high on a mountain above Kobe recalls the approaches to the Koto-in, the Ginkaku-ji and other famous Kyoto temples. And the courtyards that are a recurrent theme in his residential work clearly are intended to resurrect daily contact with nature, a central aspect of Japanese civilization that Ando believes is being lost in the country's "overly dense" cities and suburbs.

Ando is a craftsman in his strong approach to materials. He visits the building sites to supervise the mixing of the concrete, adding bluish sand, stirring the mixture with a bamboo stick. As a result of this meticulous attention, the surfaces of his poured-in-place concrete walls are extremely beautiful -- smooth, sensuous, subtly colored. He has been so highly praised for the quality of these surfaces that he is apt, critic Watanabe once reported, to brush aside admiration with the remark "I am not in the concrete business!"

But, as he well knows, the surfaces are crucial to the effects of light and shadow that he wants to achieve. In this Ando is very like the great American architect Louis Kahn, to whom the coming together of sunlight, shadow and wall was the mystical soul of architecture. At the same time, Ando's attitude is quintessentially Japanese. His "naked walls," as he has called them, and the spaces they form, possess much of the ascetic clarity of Zen dry gardens. Often the walls are situated in relation to other walls or to openings in the roof so that one can observe upon them the stark passage of time from morning to night.

With these limitless intentions and limited means Ando has created some of the more beautiful spaces in contemporary architecture.

bat10 Ando is a sensitive visionary, but there is a certain irony to his endeavor -- sad or happy, depending on the place or the way one looks at it.

His buildings, of course, must exist in the real world, where the effects cannot always be controlled by the architect. And at certain Ando sites one does wonder about the collision of reality and intention. (It is for this reason, to his credit, that he wrestles with his growing fame. He may turn down a commission for a prestigious 18-story building in Tokyo, he said, because "I'm not sure on such a scale I can express a delicacy of feeling.")

Sometimes Ando seems fully in charge of the ironies. That flagstone walkway, for example, walled with translucent glass and covered by a segmented vault of translucent plastic, is, in itself, a breathtaking passageway, and the surprise at its end -- a cubical chapel, with three concrete walls and one in glass -- is a superb contemplative space.

It's a place for monks, one can easily imagine, though it will be used solely for weddings, those occasions when Japanese couples become "Christians for a day." Here Ando, aware of the excesses of spending and display families often go to on wedding day in contemporary Japan, has provided noble spaces to elevate the participants almost in spite of themselves.

At the Times, a small shopping complex close by a little river in Kyoto, the effect is somewhat different. I spent a lot of time there, and love the building -- it's a fine piece of urban design, opening to the river in a way almost forgotten in other parts of the old city, and its interior spaces, narrow and shadowy in places, are evocative of an older Japan.

The shops at the Times are the elite of the country's fashion industry -- Kenzo, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto -- and the young clientele is unbelievably decked out in the gray, loose-fitting Japanese way: not a "salaryman" suit in sight. This is the puzzling generation of Japan, the one almost everyone talks about in discussions of the nation's future. Nobody really knows, though, in which ways this generation, richer, freer and more outgoing than any in history, will take the country.

Maybe Ando, providing "spiritual spaces" for Japan's new generation to shop in, has it right. Maybe not. But the Times if nothing else is evidence that Ando has developed in myriad ways in the decade since the little house in Sumiyoshi that turned its back on the street.